“Pauline Ecclesiology,” by David Downs

Downs, David J. “Pauline Ecclesiology.” Perspectives in Religious Studies 41 (2014): 243-255

I pursued this essay because I learned that Downs included the Pastorals in his discussion, accepting them as Pauline. Since I am pursuing the question of how the Pastorals might shape or re-shape our understanding of Pauline theology if they were seriously engaged, I was curious to see what role they played in Downs’ analysis. In the end, beyond the footnote arguing for their inclusion, little of particular interest is made of them in the essay. Perhaps this is due to the fact that this is a remarkably large topic for a single essay.

I appreciated Downs’ discussion of the universal and local church (a big issue for Baptist circles, and this is found in a Baptist journal).

However, section 3 of the essay, on “The Organization and Practices of the Pauline Churches,” was not as good. Downs says we must not homogenize these “geographically and culturally diverse congregations” into one model of “the Pauline church.” This is a common statement today, but I find it lacking. Should we not expect a significant level of similarity in theology and core practices among churches planted by one apostle who self-consciously seeks to order these communities according to the will of God?

Downs, like others, as evidence of diversity, points to the fact that these churches did not always obey the apostle. Here a key distinction must be made. Are we saying that these churches at times differed in practices or that they were never intended to have shared core practices? If the first, that is obvious and need not be debated. Paul rebukes the Corinthians for practices out of step with “all the churches.” This does not, though, mean that there was not a shared “model” to which they were all supposed to aspire. The lack of such an aspirational model is exactly what many of these scholars are arguing. In fact, Paul’s rebuke just mentioned suggests the opposite- the churches are expected to be in step with one another.

This is an important discussion because on it depends whether or not there is a coherent biblical ecclesiology (and perhaps whether we should expect a coherent theology at all in Paul). Denying the existence of such is amenable today because it allows us to say we can all have our own ecclesiologies. However, we should reconsider this claim today.